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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Big Isle politicians skip meeting

By Nancy Cook Lauer
Hawaii Tribune Herald

HILO In stark contrast to last year, only one Big Island council member is attending the National Association of Counties convention in Washington this week.

Other council members cited the grim economic situation as a reason to stay home this year, but Puna Councilwoman Emily Naeole-Beason is attending the conference, which started Saturday and ended yesterday.

Last year, six council members attended at a cost of more than $21,500 for airfare, NACo conference registration fees, hotel costs, food and gifts. Only South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford, Kohala Council-man Pete Hoffmann and Hāmākua Councilman Dominic Yagong did not attend last year.

Naeole-Beason's trip so far has cost taxpayers $2,533.79, but that doesn't include all of the expenses, according to the county clerk's office. Naeole-Beason couldn't be reached for comment.

Council members will soon be up to their ears in budget numbers, with a public hearing scheduled March 22 to take public comment on the spending plan and a series of Finance Committee sessions the last week of March for county agencies to explain their costs and revenues.

Mayor Billy Kenoi has proposed a $375.3 million budget that's 3.1 percent less than this year's. The budget relies on hikes in property taxes, cuts in positions, furloughs of employees and the elimination of the county bands to make ends meet.

Council Chairman J. Yoshimoto said next year's budget won't include money for trips. He said this year, it was up to individual council members whether to attend. The budget allowed each council member to take one NACo trip a year, he said.

Yoshimoto said he can't justify attending when the budget is so tight that county employees face furloughs.

"I was concerned about the budget," Yoshimoto said. "Even though we had money appropriated to travel, I just thought it is more prudent for me not to travel."

Yagong agreed. He's been to only one NACo conference in his 10 years on the council. He said information that's presented at the NACo sessions is also available online.

"For me personally, when we are in a situation where we're furloughing people, it just makes common sense to get this information in another manner," Yagong said.